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Report: Iraq Can Arm 25 Bio Weapons

January 29, 1998

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Despite new reports that Saddam Hussein has enough biological weapons to arm 25 long-range missiles, Israel decided Wednesday to avoid any steps that Iraq could interpret as provocative.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ``preparing for any possibility,″ and Israeli radio reports said the Cabinet was receiving intelligence assessments on Iraq’s abilities to strike at the Jewish state.

Publicly, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai tried to reassure Israelis after chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler said Iraq could destroy Tel Aviv.

``We need to continue to be calm and go about our everyday affairs. The army and the security establishment ... are checking (the situation) and if there will be a need, we will take the appropriate steps at the appropriate time,″ he said.

For Israelis, the current crisis evokes memories of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when they faced a barrage of Scud missiles from Iraq. Although those missiles carried conventional warheads, there is growing concern about Iraq’s ability to strike with biological and chemical weapons.

According to Channel 2 TV, the army believes a chemical weapons attack on a major Israeli city could kill up to 500 people. Israel TV cited estimates that Iraq has 2,200 gallons of anthrax and 2,600 gallons of botulism toxins.

The Haaretz daily, quoting Western sources, said Wednesday that Saddam has enough biological weapons to equip 25 surface-to-surface missiles. The sources told Haaretz that Iraq continues to conceal 75 non-conventional warheads and has a special unit to maintain the biological weapons system and keep U.N. inspectors away from it.

The Yediot Ahronot newspaper said the CIA has warned Israel that a U.S.-led attack on Iraq likely would lead Baghdad to fire missiles with non-conventional warheads at Israel.

Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers met Wednesday to discuss the escalation, and Israel’s Channel 2 TV said the ministers were told by senior security officials that Israel would avoid any action that Iraq might interpret as a provocation.

The security officials also reportedly said they believed the United States planned action against Iraq, and that Israel would step up ``intelligence preparedness.″

In a rare move, the health minister was invited to sit in on the session during discussion of the possibility of a biological weapons attack, radio reports said.

At a news conference in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the United States is concerned about the non-conventional threat from Iraq to countries in the region.

``It is very important that the countries in the region not feel exposed to somebody ... that threatens them with weapons of mass destruction,″ she said. ``If any actions were actually carried out, there is no question that such action would be unwise in the very extreme and it would be a serious mistake.″

A former Israeli army surgeon general said Wednesday that Israel is not helpless in the face of the threat of a biological weapons attack from Iraq.

If biological weapons do fall on Tel Aviv, the masses of casualties could be treated, said Reserve Brig. Gen. Shuki Shemer, a former army surgeon general.

``Anthrax has a five-day incubation period and can be treated with antibiotics. The sooner we catch it the better the chances of survival,″ he said.

Despite the ominous reports, Israelis appeared to be taking the situation in stride.

``A war could happen. Saddam Hussein is a real threat,″ said Alon Yaakov, who joined a trickle of people arriving at an army gas mask distribution center in Jerusalem to renew the filters for their masks, as Israelis are advised to do periodically.

Parents with small children and Russian immigrants waited in a short line as female soldiers placed the black plastic masks in bags and sealed the containers with masking tape.

``I want to feel that if something happens, I know that they (my children) will be OK,″ said Ettie Cohen, who came by with her two young sons.